The Cat of Bubastes: A Tale of Ancient Egypt by G.A. Henty is not a cat book. You might think otherwise, what with the title and the cat sitting square on the front cover. But it’s not. Say rather that the cat provides the impetus for most of the story’s action.
I was going to make a super negative and scathing post about this book, but then I poked a little more and found that this was originally published in 1888. Which…explains a lot.
I picked it up at The Brown Elephant on Saturday because it intrigued me. The title suggested that it might be the retelling of an Egyptian story, the back cover told me that the main character was a teenage boy, and I can find enjoyment in young adult books. If I had read far enough to find that oh-so-important year, about a century before I was born, would I still have picked it up?
Probably. It was only a dollar.
But I would have been better prepared. The dialogue is far more formal than most people speak today, the characters ramble on for much longer than would happen in a real conversation, and the author is showing off his vocabulary. As a kid, I might’ve had to give this the “five finger test.” That is to say, if you’re not sure if you should read a book, you read the first page and raise a finger every time you encounter an unfamiliar word. If you have a full hand of fingers by the end of the first page, don’t read the book.
As I mentioned, a lot of my problems with this book are explained away by its age. I tend to avoid most of the “classics,” that is to say, I don’t read a lot of literature from before the 1930s. It doesn’t matter how highly regarded the book is, I usually find it very difficult to immerse myself simply for how the text is written. That also explains why, if The Cat of Bubastes was a movie, it would probably rate a solid PG at worst. The worst thing in this book is death, and really just the fact of it, not even gory descriptions. It’s very dry and lacks a lot of detail in most scenes.
I should probably go back to the content. Amuba is Prince of the Rebu, a people living near the Caspian Sea who have in the past few generations become settled instead of nomadic. His father is killed in an Egyptian invasion and Amuba is taken as a slave to Egypt, though his loyal people do not betray his rank to their new overlords. Taken in by a kindly master who happens to be High Priest of Osiris, Amuba becomes the personal companion to the priest’s son Chebron. The former prince is also accompanied by his bodyguard and mentor, Jethro.
Chebron’s little sister Mysa has a cat which is selected to be the new avatar of Bast (Bubastes) but the cat accidentally dies which throws the whole plot (stalled in Egypt with “boys growing and learning”) into motion again. I suppose I won’t spoil the rest of the book, but only because that’s my habit. And because there’s little I want to talk about in spoiler territory.
You see, what infuriates me most about this book, which could still easily happen if it was written today, is the smug superiority with which it was written. The story is written in third person omnipotent, meaning that the author knows everything that has, is, and will happen. There’s a long note at the front of the book about how much research went into this and it’s made clear as Henty offers commentary and opinions from his own present. Not only is it distracting, but it’s clear he considers the Egyptians, and the Rebu in particular, to be primitive cultures in comparison to his own experience.
That just makes me cringe, and not just because of how amazingly politically incorrect it is. I was born and raised in a Western culture and I understand that most of the media I see and hear intimates that any nonWestern culture is “uncivilized” or “primitive” or somehow lesser than my own. I, as a product of Western culture, cannot honestly know anything about another culture for certain, save for the fact that it is different than my own. It is different, but that doesn’t make it better or worse. And since I well know that my culture has problems, I shouldn’t judge someone else’s.
I also highly doubt that Egypt was a slave’s paradise the way Henty describes it for Amuba and Jethro. I don’t doubt that there were good people to have as masters, but I know for a fact not everything was sunshine and roses. Because these were human beings and our race is capable of great good and great ill. Essentially, I think that despite all the aforementioned research, the author prettied up his world a fair bit in comparison to history.
And, in case that superiority complex wasn’t enough, this book managed to hit one of my other big no-no buttons. The author was, quite clearly, proselytizing.
Now, this is Ancient Egypt, so Christianity didn’t exist. (And without looking up the author you cannot possibly convince me that this man wasn’t some form of Christian.) But, there was a form of monotheism practiced if you want to go find Jews. Or Israelites, as they’re called in this book. Yes, Henty has his story overlap with the Passover story and Moses. I’m not going to argue about which Pharoah and dates, but when I saw that mentioned along with the research red flags went up all around.
Essentially, the author ends up having all of his principal characters practicing some form of monotheism in a very unsubtle way that is pressuring the reader to conform to his religious understanding. Thank goodness there’s no blatant attempts to make any of the characters into a Jesus archetype like Orson Scott Card did with Stone Tables in a similar vein, but that’s the only saving grace on this subject. You’d think this shouldn’t piss me off this much, given that I am Jewish and so this is technically my religion. But it’s the attitude and the presentation, more than which religion it actually is.
It’s Christianity, in today’s world, that has the mindset of NEEDING to convert people to their religion. I can’t think of any other major religion that has this kind of focus. And so it’s Christianity that I always have trouble with when I encounter these kinds of books, where the author can’t be bothered to keep their own opinions out of the story. And that’s obnoxious in the extreme. If I wanted to read someone’s thoughts on what religion I should be (which I don’t), I’d read an essay. When I read a book, I expect a story. If you want to prove the superiority of your religion (which is a stupid idea and not something anyone should do), prove it to me with your actions, not your words. Be the change you want to see in the world they say. Because until you do it, they’re just words, and they can mean whatever the reader wants them to.